Harvard Set to Reimagine Teach for America Model

Nearly two decades ago, in 1989, then Princeton University student Wendy Kopp understood our country’s growing need to be able to compete in the global economy with a workforce that had evolving skills and knowledge. She also noted that our country was faced with a teacher shortage and droves of high-poverty urban and rural schools that for decades had been failing our children. She embarked on a plan to recruit high-performing college graduates to teach in these schools. That year her plan, which came to be known as the Teach for America program, started with just 100 part-time student recruiters from 100 universities.

From its early beginnings as Kopp’s senior thesis, Teach for America quickly grew. By the mid 1990’s, with a backing from the federal government by be included as part of the AmeriCorps program, over 45,000 students had been reached by nearly 850 active volunteers. A decade later, that number ballooned to over 200,000 students from over 3,600 active volunteers. Fast forward to 2015 and the Teach for America program have nearly 9,000 active volunteers who are working with over half of a million students. Since its inception twenty five years ago, the program currently boasts working with 50,000 teachers and millions of students.

Teach for America’s model is simple: College graduates are recruited to become teachers in low-income communities. They receive five weeks of training through the program, and they commit to teach for two years and are hired by partner public schools across the country. At the end of the two years, the recruits may continue to work in their school community or move on to other endeavors. Critics of this model are that the program training does not effectively prepare their teachers and that the two-year commitment creates significant instability in the partner public schools as teachers come and go at the end of their commitment.

A recent Washington Post article talks about how Harvard University has started a new teacher training program that it hopes will become a national model, and one that differs greatly from the Teach for America program. Interestingly, the Harvard model shares some of the same goals as the Teach for America program had at its inception. James E. Ryan, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, described these goals: “to improve the quality of classroom teachers in urban schools, create a model that can be copied elsewhere, and present teaching as a viable career to Harvard students and their peers who do not typically think of K-12 teaching in the same vein as law, medicine or business.”

With the Harvard model, in an effort to encourage fellows to make teaching their career, they are asked to make a 5-7 year commitment to the program. In their first year they work part time in a classroom where they are responsible for two or three classes a day. During this time they work with an on-site mentor, have long-distance coaching sessions with a Harvard faculty adviser, and continue to take Harvard classes online. During years two and three, fellows teach full time but are offered the opportunity to return to Harvard for regular workshops, retreats, and coursework. Harvard’s goal is to create a large resource network to support their fellows who, as new teachers in highly challenging classroom situations, are often not well-equipped to be successful without such resources. In the Post article, Ryan states, “TFA has done an extraordinary job of drawing students into classrooms who wouldn’t otherwise be there,” Ryan said. “But we’re focused on what we know works. A big part is not only the longer prep time but consistent support during the first year of teaching and picking schools that are high-need but also functional. . . . If you want to get new teachers thinking ‘Wow, I can think of doing this for five to seven years,’ their first experience can’t be one of panic.”

Teach for America has pointed out that their volunteers receive ongoing training and support throughout their experience as well, and they do not believe that the Harvard model will act as competition to their program, simply as enhancement. As the year progresses, Harvard plans to study the effectiveness of its program over time. Could Harvard’s model serve as an upgraded approach to Kopp’s successful run at positively impacting education in America? Only time will tell. 

This article was written originally for MultiBriefs Education.


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